Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Business and work (page 1 of 24)

Our ideas about work and rest in the workplace

Harvard Business Review makes the case for my next book

In the Harvard Business Review blog, Ben Laker (one of the authors of the recent Henley Business School report on the 4-day week) and Thomas Roulet make a case for the 4-day week. It closes with this:

The recent attempts in the UK suggest the debate around the four-day workweek is only starting. While it can bring clear benefits with regards to employees’ well-being and ability to focus, implementation across organizations is made difficult by competitive and structural pressures in some sectors. In addition, there are still some negative perceptions of the practice, as well as concerns among workers regarding the way they will be seen by their peers and superiors.

Still, the idea requires proper consideration, and the potential benefits suggest a trial-and-error approach is the best way forward. Such a path would help us understand under which conditions a shorter workweek might succeed and when the benefits can outweigh the costs. The countries and organizations that can crack the code of the four-day week first could build a competitive advantage, if they can implement it in a way that maximizes the well-being benefit on the longer term while minimizing the short-term rise in labor and operational costs.

Have I got a book for you guys….

My talk at Google

Recently I was at Google, at the invitation of the Asian Googlers Network, to talk about Rest, my new work on the 4-day week, and even a bit about contemplative computing. The video of the talk is now up on YouTube:

It was a terrific crowd, and I just hope I did the subject justice!

Washington Post on the 4-day week in America

Jeff Stein at the Washington Post has a piece about the 4-day week and the lack of interest in it among American progressives and unions:

In Europe, signs abound of interest in continuing to cut working hours. The four-day week has won backing from some of the biggest unions in Ireland and Britain, while plans to dramatically cut working hours have been embraced by large unions in Germany, the Netherlands and France….

But so far, the idea has failed to gain significant attention from the American left or labor movement. Jon Steinman, who worked at the Office of Congressional Ethics, said he is starting an advocacy group in the United States to push a four-day week, although the organization is still in its infancy.

The Democratic Socialists of America and the Justice Democrats, two left-wing groups that have pushed Democrats left, have not backed the idea yet. None of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have embraced the idea, despite similarly ambitious proposals for a federal jobs guarantee or a universal basic income.

Planet Money on “Japan’s Worker Shortage” and working hours

Scenes from Tokyo

NPR’s Planet Money has a piece on efforts in Japan to allow people to work less:

Some companies in Japan are going bankrupt because of the country’s critical labor shortage. Officials point to a declining birthrate — which has led to a shortage of workers — and an infamously demanding workplace culture that is discouraging some people from entering the job market at all. This past April, Japan’s legislative body introduced a novel solution to these two problems: a law requiring workers to work less.

[The Japanese government hopes that] a cap on overtime could alter Japan’s work culture, bring new people — particularly women — into the workplace, and solve the country’s labor shortage.

You can listen to the episode below (if my efforts to embed an audio player worked):

Or you can read the transcript.

As I’ve written before, number of Japanese companies have been experimenting with different kinds of 4-day weeks: some big employers like 7-Eleven and Uniqlo offer workers the option of doing four 10-hour days per week, in an effort to give workers longer stretches of unbroken free time. Japanese e-commerce company Zozo is actually the world’s biggest company running on a 30-hour week.

Clockwise and the challenge of taming meetings in favor of focused time

For my next book, Shorter: How The 4-Day Week Can Save the World (not the exact title necessarily), I talked a lot to companies about how they fit 5 days’ work into 4. All of them talk about getting meetings under control: making them shorter, corralling them into particular parts of the day (and never letting them escape), and making sure that the minimum viable number of people are there.

One of my favorite clocks— a screen with a video of someone painting the minute hands, then wiping them off, then painting the next minute, on and on.

So I was interested to read about a new company / product, Clockwise, that is “using machine learning to make the calendars we already have work better.“ The basic idea is to use Clockwise to consolidate meeting times, so rather than have meetings scattered throughout everyone’s day, people can compress them into particular blocks of time, leaving them more “focus time”— that is, time to work uninterrupted on other tasks. As one of the investors explains,

Clockwise can figure out which meetings are movable (like weekly 1–1s) and which aren’t (like staff meetings), and can rework your weekly calendar to give you back time to think & time to work.

I’m not sure why some kinds of meetings aren’t movable (maybe they are only if everyone involved is using the product?), but it’s certainly an interesting approach. I would note a couple things, though.

The Corpus Clock

First, most of the people I’ve interviewed talk both about improving meeting discipline— making them shorter, requiring agendas, etc.— and changing norms around interrupting other people. Focused time doesn’t just spring up like a jac-in-the-box; you have to make sure that people respect each other’s need for focus, and that you see your own good behavior as essential to the solution. (As traffic engineers say, you’re not in traffic, you are traffic; all that frustrated honking at everyone else who’s clogging up the roads while you’re rightfully trying to get somewhere obscures the fact that you’re part of the problem. Likewise, recognizing that everyone’s attention and time are valuable, and acting accordingly, is really important.)

If companies have shorter meetings, but the culture of the office says that it’s okay for people to interrupt each other a lot, you’re not going to get much improvement. You need to do both.

Scenes from Tokyo

Second, while the animation shows meetings all migrating to the morning to reserve focus time in the afternoons, this runs counter to what everyone I’ve interviewed shoots for. All the companies that have migrated to 4-day weeks or 6-hour days reserve the mornings for focus time, and leave meetings until the afternoon (unless you’re in sales, and even then you try to get better control over your time). This is a small point, but given how many studies indicate that we’re more capable of focusing hard in the mornings, it might be good for people to have to override “afternoon meetings” as the default.

Finally, the other thing everyone does is make meetings a lot shorter. There’s no facility for this yet, but it would be an obvious thing to try to figure out how the system can learn enough about different types of meetings to suggest meetings lengths, rather than just default to 1 hour (which has become a default for reasons no one remembers any longer).

Anyway, it’s promising to see a company take this approach, and it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves.

My South China Morning Post piece on 996 and the culture of overwork

Orchard Road

There’s a debate going on in China over 996, the practice of working from 9 to 9, six days a week. (Some very tired yet still imaginative writers have suggested that the next thing will be 007, working from midnight to midnight, seven days a week.)

996 has been a part of Chinese startup culture for a while, but recently people have started pushing back, especially after the CEO of Youzan, a Hong Kong-based e-commerce company, announced that he was going to demand the company adopt those hours in 2019. A couple weeks ago, a leaked internal email from JD.com combined an announcement of layoffs with an exhortation to fight for more work, “regardless of performance, position, tenure, personal well-being issues or family reasons.” This came a month after another message that “asked employees to make ‘full contributions’ by working 12 hours a day at least five days a week.” More generally, it seems to be the case that as the economy starts to slow, and as tech companies have a harder time getting venture funding, etc., they’re trying to enforce longer working hours as a way of sustaining their valuations.

I couldn’t pass up the chance to add something to the debate, and so my piece on why 996 is stupid, and how and why companies should work 4-day weeks, is out in the South China Morning Post.

The recent debate over working hours at China’s tech companies hinges on a question: are long hours truly necessary, or are they simply exploitation?

Advocates of the 996 work schedule – 9am to 9pm, six days a week – say it places young professionals on a fast, steep learning curve, allowing them to unlock achievements they would have thought impossible. It shows companies which employees are most passionate about and devoted to their work. It is necessary for companies that want to do world-changing work. And in a highly competitive, always-on global economy and job market, long hours are the inevitable price of success.

Yet, every one of those statements is wrong.

I had originally written, “But to paraphrase Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, every one of those statements is wrong,” but I can see why they’d cut it.

Interestingly some of the debate in China over 996 has migrated to Github, interestingly, and it seems to have worried the government enough to get Github’s 996.icu repository banned in China. (Even more worrying, there are some reports that Twitter was blocking search results on 996, even for Western users.) Among Westerners following the debate, there’s an argument about whether this is something companies in the US and Europe need to emulate. Some make the case that Western companies need to double down on the workaholism, while Forbes contributor Stephanie Denning points out that for all its success, Alibaba seems less productive than eBay or Amazon, and James Stanier, an engineering VP for English startup Brandwatch, arguing in Medium that “We should work hard, but most importantly, we should go home.”

Now back to writing the book, so I can really make the case for the 4-day week!

Eating together at work and in negotiations

In the interviews I’ve done with leaders and workers at companies that have implemented shorter workweeks, I often hear– in the smaller places at least– that they eat together.

Lunch at the Big Building
Eating together is a powerful form of bonding for any group

At MADE Agency in Norwich, the office closes during lunch hour, and most of the staff goes out to eat together. At Pursuit Marketing, a Glasgow call center, people have breakfast together before diving into the day’s calls. When he decided to fight back against the culture of overwork and burnout in the restaurant industry, one of the changes René Redzepi implemented at Noma was to introduce

real staff meals where you sit down to eat together. We had to change our opening time from six to seven to allow for a one-hour dinner break, but it was worth it. For too long I’ve been eating out of a plastic container while standing next to my section, and I don’t want my cooks getting accustomed to the same thing.

This is one of those small-sounding changes that can make a big difference in organizations. Eating together is a way for people to spend time together in an environment where they can actually pay attention to one another; it can improve social bonding within groups; and if it’s paired with cooking, it becomes a cooperative activity that helps reinforce skills that groups can use in their work.

Old fire station

The canonical example of the last is the firehouse. In “Eating Together at the Firehouse,” Kevin Kniffin and his coauthors found that firehouse that cook and eat together perform better than those that do not. Here’s the research:

Over the course of 15 months, Kniffin and his colleagues conducted interviews and surveys in a large city’s fire department, which included more than 50 firehouses. The researchers asked the department’s 395 supervisors to rate on a scale of zero to 10 the performance of their platoon compared to other fire companies in which they’ve served. The supervisors were also asked how often the platoon eats together in a typical four-day work week. The platoons who ate together most often also got higher marks for their team performance. Conversely, the platoons that did not eat together got lower performance ratings.

In interviews, firefighters said daily group meals were a central activity during their shifts. Some firefighters who worked a shift that started at 6 p.m. often ate two dinners, one at home and a second at the firehouse. One firefighter said, in the company of his co-workers, “you don’t want to dis the wife” by turning down the food she prepared – implying that it was just as important to avoid disrespecting his co-workers. “To me, that’s a good example of the importance of the group. It’s comparable to his family,” said Kniffin, whose father was a longtime big-city firefighter.

In fact, the researchers noted firefighters expressed a certain embarrassment when asked about firehouses where they didn’t eat together. “It was basically a signal that something deeper was wrong with the way the group worked,” Kniffin said.

As Kniffin explained, “Eating together is a more intimate act than looking over an Excel spreadsheet together. That intimacy spills back over into work…. From an evolutionary anthropology perspective, eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue. That seems to continue in today’s workplaces.”

There’s actually a fascinating culinary culture among firefighters, strong enough so that “learn to cook” is a piece of professional advice that experienced firefighters give newbies. “Confidence in the kitchen will go a long way to make your life and career easier, and help you fit in no matter where you work and no matter who you work with,” one writer warns:

The standards are often very high, and you’ll be up against some tough culinary competition, so start learning to cook now, or work to improve and expand the cooking skills that you do have before you get the job.

When it comes to firehouse cooking, remember this: it takes 100 good meals to make up for one really bad one. And if the meal is bad enough, it can haunt you your entire career. My crew still talks about a terrible meal that I prepared more than 10 years ago.

And it’s not just groups that work together regularly, or have to perform as a team under life-and-death situations, who benefit from eating together. An interesting new study from the University of Chicago looks at “why sharing a plate leads to better negotiation outcomes“:

Here’s a new negotiating tactic: Enjoy a family-style meal with your counterpart before making your opening bid. When people in a business negotiation share not just a meal but a plate, they collaborate better and reach deals faster, according to new research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

The experiment consisted of two parts. Randomly-assigned pairs of students had a snack of chips and salsa, and either shared from the same bowls, or had their own.

Some excellent fish and chips!
Okay, these aren’t the right kinds of chips, but it’s the only picture I had

The pairs then had to negotiate a solution to a labor dispute; if they didn’t settle the dispute in time, a strike would be called, making subsequent rounds increasingly costly.

Essentially, participants that shared food family-style negotiated more effectively and quickly than participants that ate separately:

Teams with shared bowls took nine strike days, on average, to reach a deal, four fewer than pairs that had eaten from separate bowls. This difference translated into significant dollar values, saving both parties a combined (if hypothetical) $1.5 million in losses.

This phenomenon, the researchers write, was unrelated to how two people in a negotiating team felt about each other. Rather, what mattered was how well they coordinated their eating.

The relationship between food, sociability, and organizational performance also serves (so to speak) as an important reminder that an awful lot of the work required to implement a 4-day week and make it a success does not require making dramatic changes in how the company works, or investing in cutting-edge productivity tools, or doing other very disruptive or alien things: it’s small changes that you can undertake at virtually no cost.

There’s no Reverse Parkinson’s Law

So my friends at the 4 Day Week Campaign have released a video about the 4-day workweek:

It’s a nicely-done piece of work, and if you want a 2-minute argument for the benefits of shorter workdays or workweeks, it’s a good one.

I do think it’s worth pointing out one thing that’s a bit more complex, which is that when you open up the black box of companies and see how they make 4-day weeks (or 6-hour days) work, you find that shorter hours increase productivity not because of Reverse Parkinson’s Law. It doesn’t happen automatically and effortlessly.

It happens because leaders and workers redesign the workplace so they can do the same work (for the same financial reward) in less time. It takes some time and effort to figure out how to cut out distractions and wasted time, increase productivity, and make better choices what to work on and how to work; and companies that work 4-day weeks work harder during those four days than companies that work five. But the upside is that, having done all that work, everyone gets more free time, more time to recover, and more time with friends and family.

The downsides of early retirement

Travel and Leisure has a piece about a software developer who retired early– then went back to work

Tony said the biggest thing he missed was human connection…. Even on days he felt like being social, he added, all his friends were busy working their nine to five jobs….

Early retirement also lacked the fulfillment his work had brought him.

Apparently there are people who study the downsides of early retirement, and “loss of income and reduced social security, mental and physical decline, loss of social interaction and identity, boredom, and lack of challenge or purpose” are all things that people complain about.

But this should come as no surprise: as much as people may complain about their jobs, work does play a critical role in providing us with social interaction, a sense of purpose (even if you’re “living your passion” or whatever), etc. This, I think, is one of the reasons that we should welcome experiments in shortening the workweek: by making work more sustainable, shorter hours serve to extend people’s ability to work, which at its best is quite a good thing.

4-day weeks at the Rockwood Leadership Institute

Grand Lake Theatre

Almost all the organizations I’ve been looking at for the new book are for-profit companies. This is more or less by design, since I wanted places that had to deal with making payroll, satisfying customers, and all the rest while reducing their working hours.

But nonprofits are often places that have very dedicated workforces that believe in the mission of the organization, want to make a difference, and are susceptible to all the issues around burnout, overwork, and exploitation that you see in startups.

So it was interesting to discover the Rockwood Leadership Institute, an Oakland nonprofit that has been running on a 4-day week for years. As they explain in a post, “The Nonprofit Four-Day Workweek: You Can Take Care of Yourself and Still Change the World:”

One of the six practices we teach social change leaders here at Rockwood Leadership Institute is personal ecology: maintaining balance, pacing and efficiency to sustain your energy over a lifetime of activism. For the past seven years, we’ve found that a wonderful way to support our staff’s personal ecology is by instituting a four-day, 32-hour workweek.

Our four-day workweek experiment began during the 2008 recession when we, like many nonprofits, were finding solutions for some new financial challenges. During that time, we decided to try reducing the salaries of our department directors while also changing their schedules to a four-day, 32-hour workweek (Monday-Thursday). After a very productive year, we extended the four-day, 32-hour workweek to our entire staff (without the salary decrease) to test the idea that a shorter week would strengthen the organization overall. And it did!…

I love that the 4-day week flows from their interest in sustainability and personal ecology. At the same time, they’re also clear about the challenges:

We won’t sugar coat it. Having a four-day week isn’t without its issues. Staff have also reported challenges with answering the email that builds up over the three-day weekend, and with creating efficient systems to get work done in a timely manner. Some staff also expressed guilt about “not doing enough.”

That said, instituting a four-day, 32-hour workweek hasn’t just benefited the staff’s work and personal lives, it has also helped Rockwood grow as an organization. Since implementing a four-day workweek, we have tripled our budget and increased the number of people we serve each year while maintaining the same number of staff (11-13).

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